H Files Installment #3: Text Complexity, Variety, and Hamlet (aka This Is What the Inside of My Head Looks Like)

So about those texts…

If you judged me in the previous post based on my true confessions about planning, hopefully this post will work to somewhat redeem me. My title for today is a reference to the photo in the liner notes of John Mayer’s CD Continuum, which I once listened to before boycotting his music due to his racist, misogynist 2010 interview for Playboy. (Seriously, I won’t even let myself hum along to Mayer-inspired Muzac in the grocery store.) Mayer’s CD photo captures a messy recording studio with the caption “This is what my heart looks like.”

Well, this is what the inside of my head looked like as Jenny and selected texts to include in the resiliency unit.

When Jenny and I started planning together, we were guided by the notion that we wanted to teach Hamlet in ways that aligned with the CCSS. In our CCSS work with the CSU Writing Project, we’d been reading Sarah Wessling’s new book Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards: Grades 9-12. It’s a great book all around, but we’d been especially taken with her figure on reading complexity circles, available here on the NCTE website. (Scroll down to figure 2.1.)

As you probably know, “text complexity” is a big deal in the CCSS.

I’m not altogether crazy about the ways text complexity is framed in Appendix A of the CCSS. Print-based texts are privileged (and digital texts are referred to as “text-free or text-light sources”). Expository texts are privileged because they’re more common in the workplace. Finally, their argument that text complexity is steadily declining in K-12 schools relies heavily on quantitative measures to determine text complexity (i.e., Lexile scores), though they do present a more robust three-part model for “measuring” text complexity later in the Appendix. The model devotes attention to “qualitative dimensions” and “reader and text considerations.” (Dear CCSS authors: Please review a definition of the term qualitative. Can dimensions and considerations really be “measured”? )

Despite my bone-picking, I do agree with the overall gist of the argument presented in Appendix A:

Students need to read a range of texts at varying levels of difficulty and read them well and independently if they are to thrive in post-secondary settings.

And that’s where Sarah Wessling and her figure on reading complexity comes back in. It’s s a great tool that increases the likelihood that teachers will include a range of texts in their units by planning with three concepts in mind: context texts, fulcrum texts, and texture texts.

Briefly, context texts are shorter, accessible, high-interest texts typically used at the beginning of a unit to introduce the unifying concept around which the unit is built—in our case, resiliency. Most students will need very little teacher support to read and comprehend these texts, but context texts frame the more complex fulcrum and texture texts they’ll encounter later in the unit. In the resiliency unit, most of our context texts are on the weebly site, but we’ve also included a Hagar the Horrible comic strip and a choral reading I wrote. It’s a fun student-performed synopsis of the entire play of Hamlet.

As its name suggests, the fulcrum text serves as the primary focus for the unit; it’s usually book-length, more complex, and thus more likely to require teacher scaffolding to support students’ understanding. We’re using Hamlet and the students’ choice of one book club text from the following list: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak,  The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Shine by Lauren Myracle, and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand.

Texture texts are woven throughout the unit to extend students’ understanding and focus their attention on particular aspects of the fulcrum text as well as the unit’s unifying concept. Texture texts are also likely to require some form of teacher support because of their level of complexity. Here we’re using poetry, podcasts, various versions of Hamlet, and YouTube video.

As you saw from the photo above, Jenny and I used the text complexity circles figure extensively in our planning. My CSU Methods students also found it to be such a useful framing device, I created a blank text circles template. Jenny and I have considered our version to be a living document that we’ve adapted as we’ve been teaching the unit. As a planning device, it helped us ensure that we were selecting a range of texts at varying degrees of difficulty, including informational texts, for students to read. (By looking at our class website, you also know that digital texts have been a priority, so take that, CCSS!)

We took the organizer a couple of steps further, though, in ways that we’ve also found useful. One is that we’ve also used it to organize our thinking about student-produced texts. In other words, they’re producing context texts, fulcrum texts, and texture texts throughout the unit, too. And at the bottom of the picture that opens this post, you can see that we converted the circles into a matrix to ensure that we were incorporating a number of genres for students to both read and produce.

Again, this document is living, working, and otherwise unfolding in ways we could not have predicted going in. Consequently, we hath added and taken away as students’ needs have required, as other texts have occurred to us, and as time has dictated. Also, the standards and our summative assessments are keeping us honest so that we can kill our darlings.  As always, there’s so much to teach and so little time! Ah, the little joys of teaching….

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2 thoughts on “H Files Installment #3: Text Complexity, Variety, and Hamlet (aka This Is What the Inside of My Head Looks Like)

  1. This is an absolutely fantastic post. Thank you for the excellent information.

    Question–How do you justify the use of the essential question given the CCSS opposition to guiding readers in focusing in on one aspect of the text? For example, because students are zooming in on the idea of resilience, are they missing out on other important pieces of the text? Is there a way to potentially broaden the question such that students are thinking more critically without so much direction from the teacher? Could the essential question be more general such that students could focus in on resiliency or something related: revenge, mortality, gender, etc.?

    I’m really not sure how that would work and am curious about your thoughts! Your planning in this post is an excellent resource!!!

    • blogessor says:

      Hi, Christina. Thanks for the great questions. They really made me think.
      First, I’m unaware of the official CCSS stance you mentioned, but I’d love to see where you’re picking that up. Please provide links if you can. I know that there are some vocal contributors with whom I often don’t see eye-to-eye (like David Coleman), but Jenny and I have definitely had conversations about whether or not we’re limiting kids’ perceptions of Hamlet and the other texts we read by focusing on resilience as a controlling theme. I think it helped tremendously that we allowed the students to generate their own definitions of resilience at the start of the unit. The components of those definitions in turn helped us develop some guiding questions for the thematic focus that branched out in some helpful ways. And, of course, as we focused on specific sections of the texts, additional themes emerged. In fact, as kids read closely the longer speeches and soliloquies from Hamlet, for instance, they addressed the very topics you mentioned (revenge, mortality, and gender) as well as family and romantic relationships, and so forth. Does this help?

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